Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

The Art of Political War

A veteran columnist urges his fellow liberals to take a lesson from those nasty conservatives.

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If you're given to yelling at talking heads on nightly cable broadcasts, then Washington Post political columnist E.J. Dionne's new book might not be for you. Then again, if your political persuasion is anywhere to the left of Arlen Specter, it may be exactly the sort of thing you're in the mood for. Once Dionne stops bloviating and gets down to it in chapter five, "We're All in This Together: How the Right Won the Media, the Think Tanks, and the Loudmouths," he has some interesting things to say about media bias and its critics.

According to Dionne, the problem with the press is that it's entirely too conservative. Not in the sense that it's packed with conservatives; surveys of reporters and editors consistently put the lie to that daffy notion. Rather, the press, overwhelmingly composed of liberals and Democrats, is operationally conservative.

Two reasons are given for this. The first, and least convincing, is that most reporters and editors are drawn from a certain class of people: urban, affluent blue state types. This, Dionne grants, has meant that "on social and cultural issues—–abortion and religion come to mind—–journalism was not particularly hospitable to conservative voices." But on economic issues, "especially free trade and balanced budgets," the rootless, upper–income journalists could be found blowing kisses in the direction of Adam Smith and Newt Gingrich. Which would explain why Steve Forbes is now president.

The second reason for the media's supposed rightward tilt is more complicated and more interesting. Drawing on the work of Slate media critic Jack Shafer (whose last name he misspells—–twice), Dionne admits that there was a time when reporters tilted toward the Dems. Specifically, Barry Goldwater in 1964 suffered from the worst coverage in the history of political campaigns and consequently (though Dionne fails to mention this) won a whopping defamation suit after the election ended.

The conservative response that Dionne describes was twofold. First, they railed against the press. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew got elected, in part, by running against journalists, and kept up the pressure once elected. (Agnew's famous "nattering nabobs of negativism" jab was aimed at the Fourth Estate.) Second, conservatives began to build their own parallel institutions to challenge the older liberal ones: think tanks, newspapers, magazines, eventually talk radio and cable networks.

This criticism, and these new structures, really started to pay off in the 1990s. Talk radio and scandal–mongering conservative publications, such as, oh, The American Spectator, played a large role in keeping the Clinton administration off balance and tapping, and augmenting, some of the conservative currents in the United States.

Without this small but determined conservative media presence, it would be difficult to imagine the defeat of Clinton's attempts to radically re–jigger healthcare in 1993 or the GOP's unprecedented takeover of Congress in 1994 or Bush's narrow electoral victory in 2000. And today the astronomical ratings of Fox News are often marshaled to show the right's clout.

Dionne says that this is much more than the case of a small group managing to punch above its weight. He admits that, yes, there is a conservative ghetto press, and, yes there is a much larger mainstream press, composed predominantly of liberals of one kind or another. But he insists that the way in which the respective parties are ideological makes all the difference in the world.

Right wing institutions (Fox's "fair and balanced" slogan being the outlier) tend to be avowedly conservative and dedicated to the overall cause of repealing the New Deal (economic conservatives) and the Sixties (social conservatives). Mixing opinion with news is just part of the game, and charges of bias are easily shrugged off. On the other hand, a good deal of ink (and bytes) in these same publications is spent railing against the mainstream press for claiming to be objective but really allowing liberal tendencies to color its presentation of events.

Conservatives do all this, says Dionne, because it works. Most of the management of major newspapers or television networks are liberals, but they actually believe their own hype and think of themselves as objective observers of events. They are thus sensitive—–often hypersensitive––to charges of bias and unfairness. So conservative criticism tends to change the way the larger press covers stories and often succeeds in mau–mauing the suits into hiring conservative voices for "balance."

To be able to criticize the press for bias while being as biased as they want to be is, in the words of The Weekly Standard's Matt Labash "a great little racket" that conservatives have carved out. And it now appears that libs have decided to get in on the act. From Al Franken to Joe Conason to David Brock, the latest thing is to write books on the pernicious influence of conservatives on the press. You might even call it a new genre, and the latest entry is E.J. Dionne's Stand Up Fight Back. Fancy that …

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